Episcopalians Grapple on Web; Internet Jockeys Aim to Influence Policy on Gays

Article excerpt


The direction of the Episcopal Church is increasingly being determined not by its clergy or church institutions, but by a group of determined Internet jockeys whose reach encircles the globe.

They are men who spend 12 to 14 hours a day sending out posts to message boards, fielding replies or overseeing "blogs," or journals on the Internet, about the conflict tearing the 2.3-million-member denomination apart: the Nov. 2 consecration of the first openly homosexual Episcopal bishop.

On Aug. 5, the Episcopal General Convention meeting in Minneapolis confirmed Canon V. Gene Robinson's election to the episcopate. The vote was delayed a day because of an Internet message calling attention to the bishop-elect's connection to a youth ministry Web site that had links to hard-core pornography.

David Virtue, founder of www.virtuosityonline.org and the originator of that message, said a conservative bishop had called him at midnight the night before he posted it.

"He said, 'You'll take the lid off the church if you do this,'" Mr. Virtue says. "I did do it, and the lid came off." The article about the bishop's ties to the youth site, posted at 4 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 4, triggered an emergency meeting of Episcopal leaders a few hours later. By early afternoon, TV camera crews were pouring into the convention's conference center.

Although Mr. Robinson was cleared a day later of having any connection to the pornographic links, the lesson was clear: any self-appointed Web master could influence an entire denomination.Since then, more activists have taken to their keyboards. Very few have any journalism training and most say they make no money at it. All say it's a spiritual calling to get the news out.

When Bishop Michael Ingham of the Diocese of New Westminster near Vancouver, B.C., decided to shut down a conservative mission church four days before Christmas, one of his fellow Canadian priests sprung into action.

Within hours of the Ingham story appearing on the Web site of the National Post, a Toronto-based newspaper, the priest had sent copies around the world.

"Traditionally, the institution has controlled church news," said the priest, a man in his 30s whose Internet nickname is Binky the Web Elf. "Now the Internet supercedes regular media. This news about New Westminster would not have appeared in a church newspaper for a month, [but via the Internet] what a bishop says in North America can be read by a bishop in Central Africa in a few hours."

He gets 1,500 to 2,000 visits a day to his site, Classical Anglican Net News, also known as www.anglican.tk. So much news is pouring out from various Episcopal-related sources from around the world that he posts two daily briefings.

"People are hungry for this, so they come where it is," he says. "Even [Episcopal News Service director] Jim Solheim wrote us, saying he checks us daily.

"The ordinary people may not have the theological tools to stand up to their leaders. They often don't have that extra bit of information that allows them to say this is their church, too. Now through the Internet, their story is being told."

Not that bishops are taking this lying down.

"I have drawers full of hate mail. The Internet has enabled the technological equivalent of drive-by shootings," Bishop Ingham told a Canadian magazine, MacLean's. …